With only a couple of days left in 2014, Reel Reactions is winding back the clock to reflect on the best performances and moments of the year. Fortunately for us, there was plenty of greatness spread throughout the last 12 months, with newcomers and old favorites in front of and behind the camera offering up some truly stunning work. In fact, 2014 was a reminder that classics-in-the-making no longer need the fall awards season to thrive. Starting with the razor-sharp wit of “The LEGO Movie” in February and extending through endearing summer romances such as “Love is Strange” and character-centric fall dazzlers like “Foxcatcher,” top quality was everywhere this year as long as you were willing to seek it out. As we kick off our year end coverage, we look to the actors that gave it their all with these memorably diverse performances. Here are our 20 Best Actors of 2014:
Jake Gyllenhaal, Louis Boom (“Nightcrawler”) – Gyllenhaal is easily one of the most underrated and under-appreciated actors working today. Sure, he went through a few rocky years, but what actor hasn’t? Over the past three years or so Gyllenhaal has more than made up for it, turning in one fantastic performance after another. From the restraint of Detective Loki in “Prisoners” to the dichotomy of his dual performances in “Enemy,” Gyllenhaal has more than proven he is worthy of Oscar consideration, and 2014 might finally see his hopes come to fruition thanks to his best performance yet in “Nightcrawler.” Dan Gilroy’s brilliantly dark satire of the media provided Gyllenhaal with one of the best roles of his career, and he more than stepped up to the plate, delivering a ferocious performance that deserves every accolade it receives. Unabashedly a personification of the worst aspects of capitalism and competition, Gyllenhall plays Bloom like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He may appear normal, if not a bit odd, on the outside, but beneath the surface lays a hunger and ferocity that won’t be sated until he attains his ultimate goal: success. Gyllenhall goes to such dark and disturbing places, fully dedicating himself both mentally and physically to the roll, that he all but disappears in the character, creating one of the most memorably twisted protagonists since “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle. Now if that isn’t high praise than we don’t know what is. – J.H.
Channing Tatum, Mark Schultz (“Foxcatcher”) – It should be considered blasphemous to single out just one of the three leads in “Foxcatcher” as Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo are all equally as important to the crippling experience, but we decided to give some much deserved love to the one actor who has been getting overshadowed by the overarching acclaim offered to his co-stars. Channing Tatum, who leads the film with Carell, offers a complex, internal performance that might not be as showy as Carell’s cosmetic transformation, but is arguably even better. In terms of perspective, “Foxcatcher” is unquestionably a story told from Mark Schultz’s point of view, which forces Tatum to make choices that just years ago would never have seemed viable. Through a few key roles, coupled with a winning attitude and collaborations with talented filmmakers, Tatum has been proving his worth over and over again, but director Bennett Miller has unearthed something tremendous here. His work is truly indescribable; Mark’s lines are limited, but his emotions are loud. Channing puts the rage, the insecurity, the motivation, and the loneliness front and center, which manifests itself as a wholly physical portrayal of the Olympian. It’s one thing to just look the part – which the beefy Tatum does, no doubt – but Tatum surprises and surpasses expectations to deliver career-best and what is hopefully career-altering work; this is a performance of magnitude and maybe the most revelatory of “Foxcatcher’s” main three. – M.M.
J.K. Simmons, Terrence Fletcher (“Whiplash”) – What is there left to say about J.K. Simmons’ jaw-dropping performance in “Whiplash” that hasn’t already been said? One of the most well-regarded character actors working today, Simmons has been putting in consistently great work for decades, notably as the stern but loving dad in “Juno” and the pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” trilogy. However, nothing he’s ever done compares to his work here as he turns in what very well may the best performance of the entire year. While Miles Teller is as close as possible to matching him, at the end of the day its Simmons you walk away thinking about. It’s a performance that demands complete mastery of the entire emotional spectrum and Simmons doesn’t just knock it out of the park, he knocks it out of the stratosphere and into the face of the moon, that’s how good he is. With every scene he’s in he brings this undeniably magnetic but disturbing authority, and even in the scenes he’s absent from, you always feel his presence lurking, watching and judging. It’s a performance that nobody’s going to forget anytime soon, and it should help J.K. Simmons make the transition from “that-guy” character actor into a full-fledged legend. – J.H.
Timothy Spall, J.M.W. Turner (“Mr. Turner”) – It’s easy to walk away from “Mr. Turner” and not immediately be hyping Timothy Spall as an essential Oscar contender. Not because it isn’t an amazing performance, but because “Mr. Turner” isn’t the kind of film that contains any sort of clear “Oscar Moment.” Mike Leigh’s haunting biopic is far too subtle and restrained for any of that nonsense. But once you sit down and start really thinking about the film and Spall’s work, its brilliance unfolds in front of your eyes like that of the eponymous character’s classic paintings. Unlike most biopics, this film is far from hero worship, and Spall plays the famous painter with broad strokes of grey, grunting and scowling his way through nearly every scene. At one point he’ll be comforting a lonely widow or taking care of his much loved ailing father, only for the next scene to be him unceremoniously dismissing his daughters from having a relationship with him or taking advantage of his sickly maid. It’s a film that attempts to capture the man as he really was, and it’s so successful because Spall’s raw talent. Like Simmons, he’s a recognizable character actor most known for his role as Peter Petigrew in “Harry Potter,” but that should hopefully start to change as more people see “Mr. Turner” and the nominations start pouring in. – J.H.
Josh Brolin, Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (“Inherent Vice”) – No other film this year works on a scene-to-scene basis as exhilaratingly as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” and anytime Josh Brolin shows up with his flattop buzz-cut and laser beam eyes the film bursts with comedic fireworks. The Oscar-nominee has often excelled at exposing the dark undercurrents of his characters in hits like “Milk,” “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men,” but here he shows a sophisticatedly goofy side to himself we never knew existed. Playing Bigfoot like the straight-edged, conservative Elmer Fudd to Joaquin Phoenix’s shaggy-haired Bugs Bunny, Brolin is a riot and then some, constantly stealing the movie from himself and turning various objects (chocolate covered bananas) and settings (a pancake house) into comedic goldmines. If “Inherent Vice” is to be inhaled like a PTA-rolled joint, than consider Brolin a case of the non-stop giggles. – Z.S.
Matthew McConaughey, Cooper (“Interstellar”) – Will the McConaissance ever end? This is the second year in a row that Matty has ended up on our top performances list (an RR favorite, indubitably), and while his work as Cooper in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” won’t earn him an Oscar like his work in “Dallas Buyers Club” deservingly did, McConaughey gives the most heartfelt, earnest, and poignant performance ever ushered in by the ambitious director. Most of Nolan’s filmography is noted for its cool emotional distance, but with “Interstellar” Nolan looks to emulate a sentimentality reminiscent of early Steven Spielberg, and the film wears its heart on its sleeve and employs a theme of paternal love as a result. Luckily for Nolan, this new territory is one of the film’s biggest successes primarily due to McConaughey’s remarkable skills. The fervently beating heart that makes up for most of the ambitiously epic film’s problems is personified by McConaughey, who makes boldly moving choices from scene to scene over the course of three hours, namely a heartbreaking sequence where Cooper breaks down watching video messages from his children. It’s a leading role that outshines every supporting member and is a saving grace for Nolan, who at times finds himself working with ideas that extend beyond his reach. Matty’s work here proves that the McConaissance may in fact be an everlasting phenomenon even if the actor’s reinvention is seemingly complete. – M.M.
Tom Hardy, Ivan Locke (“Locke”) – A one-man show is not exactly an unheard of concept, but it’s a rarity these days, especially in film. A one-man show set in a single location, one that’s never been thought of as particularly cinematic, is practically unheard of. Nevertheless, leave it to the incomparable Tom Hardy to take something as mundane as talking on the phone in a moving car and turn it into one of the finest performances of the year. After a couple years of playing grandiose characters like Bane and real life bootlegger Forrest Bondurant, Hardy returns to more grounded fair with Steven Knight’s unexpectedly great drama “Locke.” Juggling both a personal and professional crisis simultaneously, Hardy brings an unprecedented level of complexity and gravitas to an already multifaceted and intricate character, crafting a character that is equally frustrating and admirable. No other film on this list is as completely dependent on a single performance as “Locke” is, and Hardy proves more than up to the task, putting the entire film on his back and never faltering once. The film is literally one hundred and twenty minutes of Tom Hardy, and it’s truly remarkable that you never feel the run time once. Hardy is just that good. – J.H.
Ralph Fiennes, Gustave H. (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) – Wes Anderson’s latest is a glowing showcase of the director’s most adept sight gags, his most calculated, though hardly self-indulgent writing, his most colorful storytelling, and a roundup of accomplished performers, many of which he has used countless times and others that he is acquainting himself with for the first time. Of the ensemble, “Budapest’s” towering lead is one of Anderson’s newest partnerships: Ralph Fiennes. As the eccentric Gustave H., Fiennes is simply magical; the Andersonian quirks embrace him like familiar surroundings he’s enthusiastically revisiting, while Gustave’s overly eloquent and verbose dialogues and nonsensical soliloquies roll off his tongue at maximum speed. It’s unlike anything the actor has ever done before, an apparent comedic distance even from his immaculate work in “In Bruges” and noticeably sillier than anything one could have ever expected the actor to willingly take on. Though Fiennes has always been reliable, his excellence here is actually unprecedented and we’d swoon if he snuck into the Best Actor category. He knocks the roll out of the park, making “The Grand Budapest Hotel” an experience worth checking in for indeed.- M.M.
Macon Blair, Dwight (“Blue Ruin”) – Before “Blue Ruin,” none of us here at Reel Reactions had ever heard the name Macon Blair, but now we’ll ever forget it. “Blue Ruin” is one of those movies you hear almost nothing about before the initial viewing, but walk out of dumbfounded that more people aren’t talking about it, in large part because Macon Blair is so revelatory in the main role of a vengeful hermit. Revenge films are nothing new, but “Blue Ruin” stands out from the pack by taking an honest approach to such an established concept. This isn’t super-soldier Liam Neeson bloodlessly shooting kidnappers, but a real, dirty, grungy look at revenge through the eyes of a hermit whose been living in his parent’s shot up car since their murder. The whole film hinges on that concept, and Macon Blair brings it all to life, conveying all the typical intentions you find in revenge flicks with none of the spec-ops training. He consistently bumbles and blunders his way through murder and warfare, fucking up at almost every turn. He barely has any dialogue, but is able to communicate everything we’d ever need to know in a simple glance. He’s far from your typical Hollywood actor but there’s magnetism to his performance here that is impossible to ignore. Next up he’ll reunite with the director of”Blue Ruin” and we could not be more excited to see what collaboration these two turn in next. – J.H.
Mark Duplass, Ethan (“The One I Love”) – Talking about Mark Duplass’ multifaceted work in Charlie McDowell’s “The One I Love” requires spoilers that are fundamental to the success of this highly original “Twilight Zone”-inspired romance. All we can really say is that Duplass, opposite Elizabeth Moss, excels at showing all the relatable shades of his character, for better and for worse. Playing a character whose actions have caused a riff in his relationship with his girlfriend, Duplass never turns Ethan into a villain, instead opting to show the pain and suffering such actions have caused and the willful determination he has to set things right with the one he loves. But then comes that doozy of a twist that throws the entire picture off what you assume is a cliché-ridden track, and Duplass’ performance doesn’t just grow, it completely warps as the plot forces the actor to reveal an entirely different side to the character. The power of Duplass’ performance is too good to spoil here, so just trust us and prepare to be blown away. – Z.S.
Bill Hader, Milo (“The Skeleton Twins”) – Bill Hader’s comedy chops have been well defined given his tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” but no one could’ve predicted the power of his dramatic undertones in his breakthrough film role as the gay suicidal brother in “The Skeleton Twins.” Milo could’ve easily filled the flamboyant funnyman archetype Hader has perfect as Stefon, but the actor infused this persona with such a dark pathos that it ended up being a side to Hader we now excitingly want to see more of. Balancing the radiant humor in his re-evolving bond with his sister and the shattering heartbreak of depression, Hader pushes his skills to new levels while maintaining that sense of improvisatory joy that makes his sketch comedy work so lovable. Wherever Hader’s film career ends up next, we’ll be gladly following. – Z.S.
Toby Kebbell, Koba (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) – This might have been the hardest decision we’ve had to make all year. Not once has our rule of recognizing one performance per film been more maddening, more infuriating, or more disheartening than it is now. Arguably the best blockbuster of the year, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was such a rousing success thanks to the incredible motion-capture performances from the entire cast. However, there are two clear standouts – Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell – and both deserve this spot as much as the next. But at the end of the day we had to narrow it down to one, and we settled on Kebbell, mainly because his performance came out of nowhere. At this point it should be expected that anytime Serkis puts on a mo-cap suit it’s going to result in absolute brilliance, and it’s no different here, but Kebbell and his incredible depiction of the antagonistic Koba came completely out of left field, creating one of the most intricate and sympathetic villains in years. Everything, from the way he carries himself to his scowl and his articulation adds up to a fully realized character, not just a special effect. It’s truly a marvel to behold, and it will forever be remembered as a benchmark marriage between cutting-edge technology and authentic performance. – J.H.
David Oyelowo, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Selma”) – If there is one way to seriously heighten your profile as a performer, you tackle a historical figure. It’s not always a sure thing, but in some cases, certain actors are born to play big screen versions of real people. David Oyelowo is one of those cases. An ensemble performer for many years, the UK-born stage actor will probably wind up being a household name after people see him in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” The actor has said that he believes being able to play the iconic civil rights leader was a gift given to him by a higher power and, speaking spiritually, it’s a hard belief to protest. This is the kind of biographical embodiment that feels almost like a resurrection. Oyelowo might not resemble Dr. King in the way that Denzel Washington resembled Malcolm X., but Oyelowo makes us believe, from start to finish, that he is King. It’s a riveting turn, and the actor embraces many challenges given that “Selma” covers more than just the eponymous Alabama town and the historic freedom walk that began there, but touchy personal subjects as well, notably King’s well-documented infidelity. Throughout this moving, unconventional biopic, Oyelowo maneuvers between portraying MLK the icon and MLK the man in a way that metonymizes the roaring emotional triumph that is “Selma.” – M.M.
Michael Keaton, Riggan Thompson (“Birdman”) – On paper it sounds easy and obvious: Get Michael Keaton, the star of Tim Burton’s “Batman” films, and cast him as a washed up ex-superhero megastar looking to make a dramatic comeback by mounting a Broadway play. But the revelation of Keaton’s soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance is just how singular he makes the character. Keaton is doing way more than just playing off his own biographical career here, and he fills Riggan’s quest for artistic fulfillment and appreciation with such a fragile desperation that he soars to tyrannical highs and heartbreaking lows all at the same time. The actor undoubtedly wows anytime Riggan goes off the deep end into a surreal exploration of his alter ego, but it’s in the quieter moments opposite ex-wife Amy Ryan that Keaton’s humanity cuts deep and the virtuosity of his performance becomes undeniable. By the end, you can’t help but fall victim to Riggan’s detrimental determination for artistic value, and that’s what makes “Birdman” such an emotional tour-de-force. – Z.S.
Jack O’Connoll, Eric Love (“Starred Up”) – The United States will soon follow suit with the UK and find unequivocal adoration for the wowing power of young performer Jack O’Connell. He’s got a commitment level that is rarely seen by other actors in his age group and his choices ring true of British actors that are usually double his age. If “Unbroken” seems too Hollywood prestige to prove this point, seek out the underseen “Starred Up,” David McKenzie’s raw prison drama that barely made a dent with audiences over the summer. Critics devoured it (for good reason), but it didn’t secure stardom for O’Connell in the States like it did for him across the pond. Flanked by Rupert Friend and the always-excellent Ben Mendelsohn, O’Connell is a fiery presence as teenager Eric Love, a criminal so relentlessly furious and uncompromisingly violent that he gets upgraded to the big boy prison. “Starred Up” is a ravenous film, authentically brutal in its portrayal of the prison environment and lifestyle, but you will be lured in by the unstoppable O’Connell whose work here is a breakthrough of equal caliber to Tom Hardy in “Bronson” and Eric Bana in “Chopper” – you know you’re watching the birth of a new star with every passing minute. – M.M.
Oscar Isaac, Abel Morales (“A Most Violent Year”) – Following last year’s star-making turn in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” 2014 will be the second year in a row Oscar Isaac gets painfully snubbed in the Best Actor Oscar race. As Abel Morales, the morally conflicted oilman trying to run a clean business in the crime-ridden setting of 1981 New York City, Isaac turns in his most meticulously controlled performance yet. Abel may not be trying to get his hands dirty, but the searing fury of Isaac’s work shows how even the most pragmatic businessman has to manipulate and navigate shady areas in order to conquer the American Dream. Abel’s words and constructed persona are just as devious as guns themselves, and Isaac only grows in power the more his character becomes as steely as his armor-like suits. With blockbuster fortunes waiting for him in 2015 thanks to the new “Star Wars,” here’s hoping Isaac continues to make bold choices and bring complex characters like Abel to life. – Z.S.
Chris Pratt, Peter “Star Lord” Quill (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) – Everyone predicted Chris Pratt would have a stellar 2014 thanks to expected blockbusters such as “The LEGO Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but the amount of effortless, authentic star power and charisma he proved himself capable of surprised even his longtime “Parks and Recreation” fans. Heading a new Marvel franchise is never an easy task, especially when it’s an unknown gang of ragtag rebels like the Guardians, so Pratt not only deserves credit for sending the film into the box office stratosphere (as of this posting it’s still the year’s highest grossing film), but he also deserves major props for making his arc from rough-around-the-edges-Han-Solo-type to brave-Luke-Skywalker-hero so goddamn fun, exciting and, most importantly, humanely believable. For all of “Guardians'” cosmic glory, Pratt is the beating heart. Next up for this new A-list superstar is “Jurassic World” this summer, and there’s no doubt we’ll be there opening day just for some big screen, action-adventure Pratt. – Z.S.
Ethan Hawke, Dad (“Boyhood”) – Like the aforementioned Jake Gyllenhaal, Ethan Hawke is one of those actors that’s always been well liked but has never been as appreciated as he deserves. He’s had his fair share of duds (here’s looking at you “Getaway”), but anytime he partners up with his long time friend and collaborator Richard Linklater the result is absolute gangbusters. While their work on the “Before” Trilogy was always the clear standout, Hawke’s performance in the wildly ambitious, twelve-year-in-the-making “Boyhood” may just surpass that of his work in that magic trilogy. Effortlessly displaying the transformation from lackadaisical and fun-loving dad to settled down family man, Hawke is incredibly unfailing and consistent over such an extended period of time. Most impressive is the fact he never feels like he’s playing a different character, with the changes and transformations always feeling like an extension of the original character. The fact that he was able to maintain this character and performance over the course of twelve years, keeping the arc organic and subtle, is a mind-blowing feat, one that completely deserves award attention. Unfortunately it appears unlikely, which is alright because this has been a year filled with incredible performances, but it’s nonetheless disappointing that Hawke’s best work will again be cast aside for something more glamorous. – J.H.
Noah Wiseman, Samuel (“The Babadook”) – There’s a reason the 7-year-old Noah Wiseman is a Critics’ Choice nominee for Best Young Performer for his debut in Jennifer Kent’s terrifying “The Babadook,” and that’s because he expertly charts his character’s emotional awakening. Wiseman’s Samuel starts the film as your typical horror brat– a child driving his mother insane through sheer stubbornness. But while the movie harkens back to the horror classics of the 1970s, it refuses to overtly join the club, mainly because it skips the child possession staple and opts to put the mother through supernatural torture instead. As a result, Wiseman must play the parent role as the plot progresses, and he brings an emotional wallop to the film as his Damon-child-from-hell is forced to grow up into a protective figure that would make “Exorcist”-era Ellen Burstyn more than proud. “The Babadook” is the best horror film in ages because Wiseman makes it so emotionally subversive. – Z.S.
Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Steve O’Conner Després (“Mommy”) – Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” sports two of our favorite performances from 2014. On the male side, seventeen-year-old Antoine-Olivier Pilon is explosive as Steve, an emotionally unstable and potentially violent youth whose emotions fluctuate in full force from scene to scene. Pilon is utterly captivating on screen, a force of nature that emotes through a blend of manic joy and relentless sensitivity; even when Steve lashes out or expresses so clearly his toxic presence, it is impossible not to sympathize with him or ache for this teenager’s vulnerability. This is such an expressive performance, and one of incredible range, Dolan’s natural instincts to devote so many individual sequences to observing how Steve’s introverted nature can be corrupted or liberated communicates the filmmaker’s sure belief that he has discovered lightning in a bottle. Without exaggerating, this is a performance that literally tears open the frame with contagious, volatile energy. – M.M.
Who are your Best Actors of 2014? Sound off in the comments section below.
Article by James Hausman, Mike Murphy and Zack Sharf